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“Darling, you seem different somehow”

Husbands and wives get used to each other’s voice. Your subscribers feel the same way about you, says Andy Maslen, which is why it pays to use appropriate language.

Selling subscriptions is a long game. And to play the long game well, you need to use appropriate language for your title and brand, and use it consistently. But that’s not an easy thing to achieve for publishers. One challenge is the average life expectancy of a marketing executive. And no, I don’t mean they drop dead after 18 months promoting “Mortician’s Monthly” – though I suppose that might be an appropriate reaction. I mean that young marketeers, as I once was myself, have a career to carve out and, except in very rare circumstances, won’t do that solely at the first publishing company that hires them.

A second reason is not seeing the wood for the trees. I heard this yesterday from a publisher about the magazine he has run, very successfully, for the last quarter century. He was talking about the differing perspectives of in-house staff, and specifically publishers/editors, to external writers. As with many industries, in publishing we frequently become engrossed in what our product IS, rather than what it DOES. And if you think this is just me finding another way to say benefits matter more than features, you’d be right.

Three tips for consistent language

So what are we to do about it? Let’s suppose, first, that we’ll stick with in-house copywriters. Tip number one, get your in-house writer to pull your magazine apart and figure out what it really does for the reader. In our household we currently subscribe to the following titles: The Economist, The New Yorker, Granta, Classic and Sportscar and She. The following table illustrates the difference between what they are and what they do:

Title Is… Does…
The Economist General news weekly Makes you feel you won’t get passed over for promotion through ignorance.
The New Yorker Cultural weekly Makes you laugh, makes you think, makes you feel you are connected to what’s going on in New York.
Granta Literary quarterly Entertains you, stimulates your mind.
Classic and Sportscar Monthly classic car magazine Makes you feel part of a group of enthusiasts.
She Women’s glossy monthly Helps you enjoy life and make the most of yourself as a woman.

Tip number two, establish some clear and simple brand guidelines. That way, even when your marketing executive moves on, your incoming replacement has the same brief to work from. That should ensure they achieve a consistent tone of voice, even if their writing style differs from their predecessor’s. The best example I have come across recently was not from a publisher at all, but Hamleys, for whom I am writing a microsite. It’s a six-page, concertina-fold, A6 leaflet but it told me everything I needed to know about Hamleys’ tone of voice and brand values. Any writer picking up that guide (and it was part of a much deeper brief) would have an excellent idea of where to start in choosing the right language to promote Hamleys.

Tip number three, for publishers particularly. Only approve copy that you feel sure will lead to more long-term subscribers. It’s relatively easy to put bums on seats, as one publishing manager told me the other day. Short-term trials, excessively valuable freebies, walloping great introductory discounts: they’ll all do it. But the serial triallists, discount hounds and gift-blaggers you attract soon disappear, leaving you out of pocket and with possible dents in your brand image. Appropriate language, therefore, will concentrate on the underlying value of the magazine to its target subscriber.

Brief, and to the point

If you are working with an external writer, the brief becomes critical. Every independent copywriter (myself included) will approach your title with a set of beliefs about what works and what doesn’t. They will, we hope, have created successful packs or email promotions for other publishers and they will, quite naturally, want to help you by applying what they have learnt. But, of course, what works for their other publishing clients may not work for you. So apart from the obvious enjoinder to test, test and test again, you also need to give them a firm steer in the right direction. In other words, the brief.

Here’s what I like to be told in a brief. What I am trying to achieve. Who I am selling to. What I am selling. The last of these questions is the nitty gritty about the title. Its brand values, positioning, history and development, special features, editorial policy and values. You get the picture. The more facts I have at my fingertips, the more I can weave into a compelling story to sell subs. And in terms of appropriate language as it applies specifically to subs copy, here are few points to consider.

Exciting, delighted and fantastic

As I was writing this article, my wife’s copy of She plopped onto our doormat complete with a carrier sheet promoting a “fantastic” discount on a subscription to Good Housekeeping, “the number one magazine for grown up women”. If the writer believed in their own strapline, then surely they would avoid this sort of glib phrasemaking. I have yet to meet a grown up woman who would call a saving of a few pounds on a magazine subscription “fantastic”.

Likewise, describing a subscription incentive as “fantastic” is patronising and insulting (unless it’s a yacht or an all-expenses-paid trip to the Oscars, which it never is). To be honest, I think it also makes the writer, or, to be more accurate, the signatory, look something of a fool. It’s a kindred spirit to all that copy describing “exciting” offers. To quote the late, great David Ogilvy, “The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife.”

Outers that over-promise

Looking at print DM, the outer is our first chance to make contact with our reader. And here’s where things get tricky. It’s back to the bums on seats versus long-term profitability equation. An unscrupulous writer can get people to open the envelope in greater numbers by over-claiming or over-promising. A line reading, “Inside, your free guide to buying a digital SLR camera” will turn prospective subscribers off if, on opening the envelope, they find they have to place an order to get the guide.

Yet, without open envelopes, print DM fails. So maybe we could take our original line and tweak it slightly to read, “How to buy the right digital SLR”. Same underlying promise, but no explicit (and untruthful) offer of a free guide.

“Everything you need to know about…”

This is a line that I freely confess to having cranked out myself (though not for many years). When I used to promote market reports on different industries around the world, I’d often include a phrase that ran something like this: “World Hot Drinks Report tells you everything you need to know about trends and developments in the global market for tea, coffee and hot chocolate.” Even then I suspect I only half-believed the claim I was making, but now I squirm. This is not to say that the report wasn’t useful, valuable or interesting. But it didn’t … couldn’t … tell the CEO of a tea company everything he needed to know.

This kind of writing fails the appropriateness test because it’s an empty boast. Instead, we should find out or work out what our reader does want from our title and talk about that. Do they want to make smarter property deals? Take better photographs? Feel part of a select group of transatlantic culture-vultures? There’s the hook.

Inappropriate language is so over

Emulating the argot of teenagers spells, like, doom for any copywriter; but for pretty much any other market it pays to aim for an the appropriate tone of voice. Lawyers, mothers-to-be, classic car nuts: there’s a tone of voice that will strike a chord with each of them. Though what you do about a pregnant barrister who drives a DB5 I’m not sure.

There are a few ideas that should work well with any group, however (even the MySpace crowd). One is to keep it simple. Use plain English and short sentences. The magazine you’re promoting might be awash in the sort of labyrinthine syntax that needs a ball of twine to escape from, but its readers have already made the decision to read it and invest some of their time in it. Your copy, on the other hand, is noise, unless it’s well written enough to engage them.

Another idea is to empathise with your reader. On copy workshops I run, we take delegates through a role-playing exercise involving visualisation techniques to get them thinking – and feeling – like their reader. Then we ask them to consider a recent piece of copy they wrote and, as the reader, offer the writer some advice. One of the best bits of feedback we had from this exercise was, “I need to stop writing what I want to write and start writing what my reader wants to read.” Simple, but true.

This is a big subject, ranging from management control to word choice. But it goes to the heart of any piece of copy you need to write. Make your copy relevant to your reader and their needs, wants, hopes and fears. Make it appropriate to your brand. And, crucially, ensure that no matter who writes your copy – editors, marketeers, freelancers, agencies – they write consistently over time. After all, long term subscriptions are like long-term marriages, and it’s very strange to find your spouse has had a personality change every 18 months.

Categories: Customers, Selling, and Style.

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